Jackie solves Houston problem
In this week's North of the Border, Peter Houston blasts off from Dundee, some SPL backing for structural changes and Hearts beat Inverness in the cup.
JACKIE JUMPS SHIP
Dundee United will take on Rangers in the Scottish Cup this weekend with a new manager at the helm. Peter Houston, who emerged from the shadow of Craig Levein to win the same competition for United, left this week and United moved quickly to recruit Jackie McNamara from Partick Thistle.
McNamara is 39 and has completed only one full season as manager. His candidacy was strengthened by the progress made at Partick since he replaced Ian McCall there in April 2011. Thistle are five points behind leaders Morton in the First Division with two games in hand. In his time there, McNamara has developed his team on a limited budget and has them playing a passing game that he will likely attempt to bring to United.
It is an appointment with consequences in both of the top two divisions. As United plan for the future under new management, Thistle must find the right man to continue their fight for the championship in the second tier. In terms of what is at stake at both clubs, this is the more significant move: get it right and Partick could be on the last boat out of the First Division as we know it. Any loss of traction in the handover could prove critical in a tight promotion race.
The stakes are a little more difficult to discern as this week the SPL announced its unanimous backing for the proposed 12-12-(8-8-8)-16 league structure, or 'The Vorderman Solution', as its authors have so far refused to coin it. They have proved far less proficient than the former Countdown brainiac in explaining how their apparently random selection of numbers can equate to a satisfactory answer for the many problems faced by Scottish football.
The plan that is opposed by an apparently overwhelming majority of supporters at every level can now only be stopped by the Scottish Football League, who have their say at the end of this week. The chief executive of that organisation, David Longmuir, has put his chips behind this model, however, and a veto of the kind the SFL issued on SPL proposals to reboot Rangers in the top division looks less likely this time.
The SPL seem hell-bent on implementing change in time for next season, meaning that teams end the season playing for places in a structure entirely different to those they started out aiming for. There are many, many more problems with this situation than that, of course, and for more information on the betrayal of the customer, the death of championship football in the second tier and the possibility that zero teams will be relegated from the new SPL, please read previous rants. I'm sure they're right really and it's all for the best.
YOUNG HEARTS RUN FREE
The semi-finals of the Scottish Communities League Cup were played last weekend, with the favourites toppled in two ties that produced plenty to talk about. Both matches were influenced by strikers signed earlier in the week. The January window is frequently described as a place for desperate shoppers, but both Hearts and St Mirren, who will meet in the first final of the season, have already been rewarded for shrewd picks.
The surprise package of the SPL this season, Inverness Caledonian Thistle were the smart pick to beat Hearts as seven places and 11 points separated the teams at kick-off. Hearts, having come through a life-threatening jam with the tax man earlier this season, fielded an incredibly inexperienced team. Two of the seven academy graduates in the line-up had only played once for the first team before.
Inverness took the lead; Hearts had their midfielder, Scott Robinson, sent off at 1-1 in the second half, but still Terry Butcher's team could not close it out. This was a match in which the confidence of Billy McKay, their striker, may have lost all the confidence his 20 goals this season have given him.
McKay missed a one-on-one in the first half, put through by a glorious pass from Andrew Shinnie, the Highland club's most creative player. Jamie Macdonald, the Hearts goalkeeper, made a smart save when McKay went for the bottom corner. Then, in extra time McKay and Shane Sutherland were in on Macdonald. Sutherland drew the goalkeeper and squared for McKay. The striker is probably still asking himself why he didn't swing his left leg at it in the middle of a gaping goal. Instead he took a touch and ended up cutting inside two rallying defenders before passing to Shinnie.
The decision making was so bad that it clouded another save by Macdonald, from Shinnie, that kept Hearts alive. Likewise, in the penalty shoot-out, the focus was on the only player in the 10 to miss: Philip Roberts, the Inverness striker. However, McKay's kick could not have been any more timid. He trundled it low and central and soft and was fortunate Macdonald had already taken off. For Inverness, a superb season has been dented by an opportunity missed. For their goalscorer, this is a match to forget before it does more lasting damage.
Despite Macdonald's heroic performance and the strong show from their graduates, the most compelling element of the Hearts story was their starting centre forward, Michael Ngoo. The 20-year-old England youth international was signed on loan from Liverpool the previous day and John McGlynn, the manager, was vindicated by his decision to throw the forward straight into his team by a goal in 90 minutes, a penalty converted in the shoot-out and a performance to suggest he will be immoveable at the top of the team for the rest of the season.
Hearts have been punchless for long spells this season but Ngoo combines a physical lone-striker game with penalty-box instincts which could give Hearts an edge they have lacked all season. With such an inexperienced team it is still possible their season could come down to one game, at Hampden on March 17.
SAINTS BE PRAISED
Their opponents on that day will be St Mirren after they shocked Celtic with a 3-2 win at the national stadium in Glasgow, another match that had a whole lot going for it.
As in their defeat by Kilmarnock in the final of this competition last year, this was not a counter-punch smash-and-grab. St Mirren took advantage of a lightweight performance by Celtic and were deserved winners.
Their breakthrough came from another striker making his first appearance, the Portuguese Esmael Goncalves, on loan from Rio Ave. Celtic levelled through Gary Hooper, of course, before Craig Samson brilliantly saved a Charlie Mulgrew penalty. Mulgrew then gave one away, tucked in by Paul McGowan and wrapped it up with a goal from Steven Thompson before Mulgrew completed an eventful 90 minutes with a fine goal.
The final is a landmark for St Mirren and the win was their first at Hampden since 1987. However, there is great significance on the scoresheet for the rest of their season in the SPL. Their reliance on Thompson, who scored his 13th of the season in the semi, has been dangerous. The return from a long injury of McGowan has provided a creativity missing in his absence and if Goncalves improves their starting frontline St Mirren should have enough goals to get clear of any danger at the bottom of the league.
Even if neither Ngoo nor Goncalves do a great deal from here on in, they already have a little bit of history at the clubs they are passing through. Just ask Kilmarnock supporters about Dieter van Tornhout.
BEEN CAUGHT STEALIN'
Leigh Griffiths, the Hibernian forward, has reportedly been charged with a shoplifting offence after being detained by staff at a supermarket.
Griffiths is one of the most dangerous forwards in the SPL and his 15 goals this season are the rock on which his team's improvement rests. However, he is almost as prolific in his acquisition of negative news stories. The 22-year-old is father to four children by three mothers; he was accused of racist remarks on Twitter earlier this month; last season he was suspended for gesturing to opposition supporters and now he is accused of being as elusive at the checkout as he is in the penalty box.
Griffiths is at Hibs partly because of all this. He is a Wolverhampton Wanderers player and has the talent to succeed in the Championship. Yet his club are willing to loan him to Hibs - the team he supports - as they have not been able to reconcile his ability with the baggage he carries. He should have his best 10 years ahead of him and there may be time for Griffiths to channel whatever furies drive him to this kind of trouble. However, this week's news raises the possibility that his potential will never be realised and that Hibs, too, may grow tired of looking for it.